Give diplomacy a chance in Afghanistan

In its opening days, the Obama administration has set the stage for both diplomatic and military moves in Afghanistan and South Asia. Peace movement leaders here urge emphasis on diplomacy and economic aid, and warn that military actions will worsen the situation.

Last week President Obama appointed veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, signaling a regional approach to the area. This week Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “President Obama has made it clear that the Afghanistan theatre should be our top overseas military priority.” He added that there’s “no purely military solution.” The administration is said to be considering sending up to 30,000 more U.S. troops to join the 32,000 already there along with a similar number of NATO soldiers.

These moves are consistent with Obama’s campaign emphasis on Afghanistan and Pakistan as the “central front” in the “war on terror,” his recognition of the need for political and economic action, and his call to send more troops to Afghanistan, crack down on cross-border insurgents and attack them on the Pakistani side of the border if Pakistan failed to do so.

U.S. peace movement leaders say more troops will only worsen a situation in which rising civilian deaths from U.S. and NATO air strikes and raids are inflaming public opinion in both countries. They urge troop withdrawal, a broad regional diplomatic approach and civilian economic and humanitarian aid.

Calling Holbrooke’s appointment “an exciting moment for the peace movement, because it’s possible diplomacy will be the first step” to respond to the “spiraling crisis” in Afghanistan, Judith LeBlanc, organizing coordinator for United for Peace and Justice, said it shows the importance the administration is placing on diplomacy.

“But,” she said, “from the beginning the administration has been talking about sending more troops … It’s incredibly important that the antiwar movement reach out to this envoy and speak directly to the White House about our concerns.”

Those views were shared by Terry Rockefeller of September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, founded by family members of those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. “As a group that’s always rejected the notion that any victory can be won by war in Afghanistan, the idea of regional diplomacy makes a lot of sense to us,” she said.

However, “military engagement has a logic of its own,” she noted. “At this time it seems like the worst thing we could be doing. The world has celebrated this new administration with us. What we could say is, there’s a three-month cease-fire, a six-month cease-fire, while we really give diplomacy an opportunity.”

The organization’s briefing paper, “Afghanistan, Ending A Failed Military Strategy,” is available at www.peacefultomorrows.org.

In a Washington Post essay last week, former Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern called shifting troops from Iraq to Afghanistan “a near-perfect example of going from the frying pan into the fire.” Instead, he proposed “a truly audacious hope for your administration: How about a five-year timeout on war — unless of course there is a genuine threat to the nation?” The interval, he said, could be used for humanitarian projects such as feeding women and children in Afghanistan and other poor countries. “It would cost a small fraction of warfare’s cost, but it might well be a stronger antidote to terrorism.”

David Wildman of the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Global Ministries highlighted the urgent need for local community development. “My hope would be that the new administration sends a message that our top priority will be concern for civilians,” he said. Wildman said interim steps on the way to lowering military presence in Afghanistan could include independent investigations by human rights groups of incidents involving U.S. troops, and opening the Bagram detention center to international monitoring.

Jon Rainwater, executive director of Peace Action West, said discussions Peace Action leaders held in Washington before the inauguration gave them a sense that many members of Congress and the administration understand the Afghan war can’t be won militarily, and that economic aid and regional diplomacy are important. But, he said, “there’s an inertia about giving those other tools the emphasis they deserve. One thing we highlighted is that Obama has acknowledged the importance of economic development and has talked of increasing the funding for non-military programs there. But that’s a drop in the bucket compared to even the current expenditures on the troop force there.”

Meanwhile, Obama has called for a review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan.

The urgency is underscored by rising popular outrage on both sides of the border over civilian casualties during U.S. attacks since the new administration took office. Angry protesters gathered in Mehtarlam, capital of Afghanistan’s eastern Laghman Province, to protest deaths of at least 16 civilians in a U.S. raid on a village Jan. 23.

The same day, across the border in western Pakistan, a senior Pakistani official said two U.S. missile attacks may have killed up to 100 civilians. In Washington, administration officials refused to answer whether President Obama had okayed the missile strikes.

mbechtel@pww.org